Belgium: Growing potential for new anti-neo-liberal political initiative

CWI contests local elections to highlight case for new workers’ party

The political situation in Belgium has changed quite dramatically over the last year, starting with two general strikes and big protests. This was first general movement of Belgian workers since the 1993 general strike. These protests against the attempt of the government to change the pension legislation graphically illustrated the absence of a political instrument for workers. The most advanced layers of workers felt this issue was the most urgent one to resolve.

Towards a new workers party?

Eighteen years of social democrats participating in government alienated many workers from their former traditional parties, particularly the SP.a in Flanders but also the Francophone PS. Some workers still vote for what is seen as the "lesser evil", in Flanders, while others transfer their votes to the Vlaams Belang (VB) as a protest vote. The neo-fascist party VB gained in 13 elections in a row and won over a big part of the base of the social democrats in Flanders by their so-called ‘anti-establishment’ stand.

At the beginning of 2006, three well- known figures in the socialist movement launched an appeal, "Different politics are needed; different politics are possible". Jef Sleeckx, who spent 21 years in parliament for the Flemish social democrats (SP.a), Lode Vanoutrive, 5 years in European Parliament for the SP.a, and Georges Debunne, for 20 years chairperson of the social democrat trade union centre ABVV/FGTB, made the appeal a focus point around which workers that are looking for an alternative to neo-liberalism can gather.

Meetings were organised with groups of workers and shop stewards. Public meetings were held and debates organised throughout the country. The conclusion of the three, Jef Sleeckx, Lode Vanoutrive and Georges Debunne, expressed at a meeting in Antwerp, in June, was that these meetings, and the response to their appeal, showed the enormous political space and enthusiasm that exists for a new party for workers and their families. Their other conclusion was that it was necessary to launch a new political movement, now planned for 28 October.

Struggle forces workers to conclusions

Two general strikes, and a national demonstration of more than 100,000 workers, towards the end of 2005, reflected the bitter anger in society against the neo-liberal pension "reforms" of the government. On the question of job losses in industry, and cuts in services, we saw, over the previous years, local, regional or sectional struggles. What was lacking was a cohesive plan to unite these struggles into one movement, to save jobs, wages and services. The social democrats in the regional and national governments carefully attacked one sector after the other, as they were scared of provoking a generalised reaction of workers. With growing social cuts in neighbouring countries, and the lowering of taxes across Europe, the Belgian bosses stepped up the tempo to stay "competitive". The first attack was against the pension system. The next one will be to undermine the automatic indexation of wages to price increases.

Before the end of the year, the social democratic trade union, ABVV/FGTB, will organise a ballot among its one million-strong membership on the question of the political affiliation. This is their response towards the growing pressure from below to break the links with the social democrats. The union leaders hope to use this ballot to drown out the active core of militants, amidst the big numbers of passive supporters of the union, who only get their information through the official channels, like the union’s weekly paper, radio and television. But this ballot will put the discussion on the agenda inside the union. It is likely that some layers of the bureaucracy will prefer an anti-political stand instead of favouring a new political initiative.

Why a clear worker’s party is needed

In Belgium, as well as internationally, some on the Left claim that, today, the aspiration to build a workers’ party is not the answer for the left. Some simply call for a left ‘re-groupment’ of existing left forces or an anti-capitalist initiative that can bring together all anti-capitalist forces. The LSP/MAS (CWI in Belgium), and the CWI internationally, always argued for the idea of a new mass workers’ party, while being prepared to participate in any genuine initiative or movement that can develop towards that goal.

Some on the Left defend the idea that nothing fundamentally has changed with social democracy since they voted for war credits during the First World War and these parties still represents what Lenin called "bourgeois workers parties". In our opinion, a process of ‘bourgeoisification’ of these parties was on its way during the 1980s, which accelerated by the after the collapse of Stalinism in Eastern Europe and by bosses’ neo-liberal offensive. The direction of the process was clear, even if the rhythm differed, from region to region, depending on particular social and political circumstances.

The bourgeosification of social democracy created an enormous political vacuum in society. In elections it was partially filled by the populist rhetoric of the far right. The "progressive" parties tried to hold on to their votes with the argument of voting for the "lesser evil". But amongst a many workers and young people a feeling of despair towards politics developed, even sometimes an anti-politics stand.

It is through struggle that workers will be forced to create a new political instrument. It is these layers that should form the basis of any new initiative. It is towards this section of the working class that the new initiative should be oriented.

Media show enormous interest

During the beginning of August, some journalists used the launch of the website of the new Jef Sleeckx, Lode Vanoutrive and Georges Debunne initiative to interview Jef Sleeckx about his project. The media wrote about a new workers’ party that will be launched by the end of the year, even if Jef Sleeckx had not said this. The response these articles provoked was enormous. Many workers contacted the appeal’s website for more information or expressed their desire to be active in a new party. It proved the big potential the initiative has got. One spin doctor claimed in the media that such a party has a potential of winning 10% in polls, on the condition that it would not participate in government.

Launch of a new movement, 28th October

Hundreds of activists, and people new to politics, will gather in Brussels on 28 October to launch a new national movement against neo-liberalism. The first challenge for this new movement will be to participate in the national elections scheduled for June 2007. LSPMAS gives its full support to this initiative. At the same time, we argue for a correct approach on some of the crucial issues in Belgium, like the national question. A French-speaking initiative, Une Autre Gauche (UAG), defends the idea of a confederation model for a new political formation, based on two separate organisations working together in a national context. Such an organisation structure would organise workers on a language basis, which would create serious problems in the future. The UAG also wants to limit the rights of organised groups in the new left initiative, and has a very narrow approach to which sections of society the new formation should focus on.

LSPMAS (CWI) defends class unity and democratic rights for everyone, organised or not, and for the new initiative to look to winning those workers who want a left alternative to neo-liberalism.

We are sure that a success on 28 October can prepare the way for a new left formation for the Belgian working class. But issues on programme, orientation and structures will have to be addressed in a clear way, taking a socialist perspective, so that the initiative is an aid to workers organising, and not an obstacle.

8 October council elections

Sunday 8 October sees a new electoral "Black Sunday", in which the Vlaams Belang in the Flemish area, and the Front National, in the French-speaking area, will be the main winners. For the new left movement the elections came too early to set about contesting them. However, LSP/MAS will contest the elections with 10 lists and 68 candidates. We are standing in the four biggest cities in Belgium: Brussels (in 3 of its 19 district councils), Liege, Antwerp, Ghent, and also in Mechelen, Keerbergen, Mons and Wavre. We are mainly using this election campaign to put forward the necessity of a new workers’ party, and to help build for 28 October. We are not yet in the position to offer an electoral alternative to the majority of voters, but we will use our energetic election campaign to strengthen the ideas of socialism and the LSP/MAS.

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